Play Stuff Blog

Tournaments, Contests, and International Scoreboards: A Prehistory of Esports in the 1980s Arcade  



RePlay magazine article, 1985

I had the privilege of digging through the archives at The Strong museum during the last week before Labor Day 2017. The collection had a great deal to offer my research interests, which center on game studies generally and competitive gaming (esports) specifically. The research project I had proposed focused on investigating the prehistory of esports. Today, a class of competitive players earn a living by excelling in tournaments for games such as League of Legends and Super Smash Bros. Melee, but game competitions have been around for decades. The central question I wished to pursue was whether the term “esports” applies to 1980s tournaments for arcade games as easily as it does to competition-focused games widely played today.

The Strong’s collection produced many unexpected-but-hoped-for treasures, including a tournament report of an “Iron Man” event in which an 18-year-old named James Vollandt reportedly played a Joust arcade game for 67½ consecutive hours, losing consciousness only for 15 minutes mid-game. Another delightful discovery came out of the Atari Coin-Op Division corporate records: a folder containing correspondence and news reports for Super Sprint detailed every step in Atari’s promotional campaign for the game. 

This included cost estimates, promises of mutual publicity for both Atari and the arcade owner, a press release boasting of the “Return of Video Games,” and a newspaper clipping post-competition. Often, the monetary incentives for developers and arcade owners to promote games through competition must be inferred from incomplete documentation; that this folder happened to detail every step was an exciting find for my research.

Gauntlet II contest flyer. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

To make a preliminary comment on the outcome of my central research question (wh ether 80s competitions in arcades are best understood as “esports” or not): tournament reports in RePlay and Play Meter magazines, as well as stories in Atari’s corporate newsletter and documents in its Coin-Op corporate records, describe a subset of arcade-goers who sought competitions in which to achieve prestige and excellence. However, some key factors distinguish competition during the arcade’s “Golden Era” from today’s esports culture: the professional class at the top of the heap; the potential for fandom through social media; long-term financial investment from developers and advertisers; and the ability to establish an audience through niche-focused broadcasting on live-streaming platforms. Whether or not these aspects of today’s esports paradigm are in fact definitional to the concept of “esports,” the documents within The Strong’s  collections offer a detailed account of competitive gaming’s decades-long history and complicate one’s attempts to define the term. It goes without saying that I’m grateful to the insightful and indispensable staff at The Strong for the opportunity to conduct this research as I attempt to spin it into a larger proj  ect.